If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been there: your child says or does something that pushes your buttons, and the next thing you know, you’re yelling at the top of your lungs—and she’s responding in kind. Afterward, you feel drained, upset and frustrated and wonder why it always has to come down to a screaming match. Janet Lehman, MSW, explains how you can move from being “The Screamer” parent to one who communicates effectively.
Why do parents yell and scream at their kids? I think most people scream because they’re frustrated. At the exact moment in time when you lose it, you don’t feel like you have any other options; it becomes like a knee jerk reaction or a trigger being pulled. In other words, you don’t think about what you’re doing, you just respond.
Yelling at a problem does not usually make it go away—it only makes matters worse.
Parents can also let incidents with their child’s behavior pile up. They go from situation to situation compiling their frustration with their kids. Eventually, they react by screaming rather than with a response that really deals with the misbehavior effectively.
I’d like to point out here that it’s important for parents to remember that we’re not perfect, and that we can learn from our mistakes. A periodic scream or two doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.
I also want to stress that it’s okay to speak strongly to kids. But getting angry and then ratcheting up to screaming is not helpful, especially if it’s over anything and everything, because there’s no connection to the actual misbehavior.
Let me tell you a story about my own family. I had a long commute home from work when my son was growing up, and from time to time I would be frustrated and in a bad mood when I got home. I would arrive late and find our adolescent son not doing his homework and sitting on the couch and eating and making a mess—usually with his feet up on the table. I like to keep everything in order, so this was extremely annoying to me. I won’t lie—there were some days when I was really tired and hungry and frustrated, and I did yell and scream at him.
After that happened a few times, I felt like my personal homework was to think about how to respond better in the future. The first thing I realized was that I needed some space after work because it was a time where my emotions were triggered easily. I also took some time to look back at my behavior afterward, and reviewed the scene in my head. I would sometimes go over things with my son and apologize for yelling and explain that I’d had a hard day and that I was sorry I took it out on him. If you decide to do that, understand that it’s not about getting forgiveness from your kids, it’s really just about owning your behavior, learning from the situation and trying to do better next time. Also, James and I made sure our son was held accountable for his actions. Getting homework done and cleaning up after himself were his responsibilities, and he knew that failing to do either would result in receiving some consequences. My goal became to stay calm and handle his behavior without losing control myself.
If you find yourself yelling at your kids much of the time, understand that it empowers your kids in a bad way, because it gives them the message that you are not in control. And if you aren’t in control, they might assume that they are the ones in charge. Both of these are fairly dangerous messages, in my opinion. It’s also important to understand that kids feel unsafe when their parents have no control.
Success is feeling good about how you’ve done your job in teaching your child how to behave—and you can’t feel good about yourself if you’re screaming all the time. When chronic screaming becomes the norm, children are also apt to think it’s okay for them to scream all the time, too. You’re teaching your kids that screaming is a suitable response when you’re frustrated or overwhelmed. It doesn’t teach anything positive, just that life is out of control—and emotionally, you’re out of control.
Here’s the bottom line: If you use yelling to get your kids to comply, you’re not teaching them better problem–solving behaviors. Yelling at a problem does not usually make it go away—it only makes matters worse. And if they’re screamed at all the time, your kids will learn that they never have to change their behavior, they will just take the screaming and do what they want to do. Eventually, your child will simply tune you out.
If you find yourself screaming at your child frequently, it’s not going to be easy to stop yourself—at least not right away. Learning how to change the way you communicate with your child takes practice. You might need a bigger bag of tricks because your kids are going to push your buttons to try and get you to lose control—which is what they’re used to. But you can learn to have control and communicate with them effectively. Here are some tips that will help you get back on track:
Remember, you can always get out of a screaming match: Here’s a simple truth: if you’re caught in a screaming match with your kid, it’s always okay to stop at any point. No matter if the fight is just beginning, if you’re deep into it or it’s been going on for ten minutes, you can give yourself permission to stop and step away from the situation. As my husband James used to say, “You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.’ Walking away from a screaming match will often stop the fight in its tracks, right then and there.
Stepping away—taking that time away from the heat of the situation—also helped me as a parent to figure out what my response should be. Sometimes it meant spending some time away from my child and then going back later and dealing with his misbehavior.
Wait ten minutes—or 24 hours: I think it’s fine to wait ten minutes—or even wait until the next day—to come back and talk with your child about his inappropriate language or behavior. Often, things with our kids are truly not that urgent. Most of us scream about things that are minor when you really think about it. They might feel urgent at the time, but that’s only because of whatever we bring to the situation—not usually because of our kid’s behavior. I also think that sometimes it’s good for a child to have to think about a situation or incident.
Disengage: A very simple thing you can do is count to ten while really disengaging yourself from the situation. So count to ten, walk away, go into a different room, do a different activity. Even if you don’t have a clue what’s triggering your frustration, if you know that you are overreacting, (and screaming is usually an overreaction unless you’re yelling at a small child running into a busy street) try to disengage.
Give Yourself Transition Time: Give yourself some time to transition when you come home. Take ten minutes to go wash up, gather your thoughts and then come out of your room and talk to your kids. They’ll act like they can’t wait ten minutes at first, but they’ll get used to it; they’ll learn to give you your space eventually.
Prepare yourself mentally: When I was on my way home from work, I also made preparations for how I would react. I would think to myself, “Okay, when I get home, if my son hasn’t done his homework and if he’s made a mess again, I’m not going to yell or scream. I’m just going to give myself time to unwind, and then come out and deal with his behavior.’ So if you know your triggers, you can plan your reaction.
Know your triggers: We all have triggers, and often they’re not the most rational things. I think it’s useful for parents to know what their triggers are, what sets them off. Is it the feet on the couch, is it backtalk, is it making a mess in the kitchen? Teach yourself what you can do when you’re triggered in order to respond more effectively.
Review the screaming match after the fact: If you’re working on staying in control, I think you need to really look at yourself. Start reviewing what happened after the fact and try to practice more effective communication with your kids where you’re not out of control. Sometimes just having more positive interactions means there’s less time for the negative.
Ask yourself what kind of parent you’d like to be: Very few people want to be known as a chronic screamer, or feel good about yelling at their kids a lot. Ask yourself what kind of parent you want to be. And remember, you can stop at any point and at any time to make these improvements.
Get support: If you’re trying to get more control and would like to stop yelling, I recommend that you talk to your spouse, or your friends, and really acknowledge all of it. I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about—almost all of us scream. Your spouse might have some insights or some ideas of what you can do; maybe he or she can even step in and help out next time when you start to lose it. They also might notice what some of your triggers are that you haven’t noticed yourself.
Parenting has moments of high stress, and let’s face it, we are living in a very stressful time. Meanwhile, life goes on—our kids continue to act out, fail to listen to us and misbehave. I think parents often scream because it has become an automatic response. We’ve often learned how to yell and scream from our own parents, but remember, you have more tools than your parents had. They did the best they could, but they had no courses on how to be effective; they didn’t have Empowering Parents or The Total Transformation Program. We have the benefit of knowing what didn’t work in the past and we have the power to change things. Changing the way we do things is a matter of mastering our self–control toward more responsible parenting and understanding that we have choices in our behavior.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.